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Best Chaka Khan Songs: 10 Unstoppable Funk Belters
List & Guides

Best Chaka Khan Songs: 10 Unstoppable Funk Belters

Connecting the past and future of Black music, the best Chaka Khan songs stride from empowering anthems to straight-up floor-fillers.

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“Yvette and Chaka are two different girls,” Chaka Khan said in 2015, referring to her birth name, Yvette Marie Stevens. “Chaka is an entertainer. I don’t like her very much. She’s stressed a lot because of all the, ‘Oh you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,’ and it takes me away from my comfort zone, which is being Yvette now.” Yet it’s for the best Chaka Khan songs that Yvette is known – and hers is a legacy that empowered women and defined funk music throughout the 70s and 80s.

Becoming Chaka Khan: “Everyone was looking for an identity and so I picked the Yoruba culture and religion”

Yvette became Chaka at the age of 17, and her full title is Chaka Adunne Aduffe Hodarhi Karifi. “During the pan-Africanism days in the US, everyone was looking for an identity and so I picked the Yoruba culture and religion,” she has said. “We used to do classes, and one year there was an African priest who would come over and he gave me my name.” Khan was also a member, while a teenager, of the Black Panther Party, selling newspapers and running a free-breakfast-for-children programme as part of her activism.

She realised she could sing around the age of 12 or 13, when she performed an Aretha Franklin song at a talent show and “people threw money on the stage”. After leaving high school, she began to sing with local groups in her native Chicago. In 1972, Khan joined a new funk group who called themselves Ask Rufus; they would soon drop the “Ask” and, with Khan, go on to find enormous success with a series of funk and disco anthems. For a time, Khan had a parallel solo career alongside her work with Rufus, but by the early 80s her solo career was supernova, and she left the group to concentrate on that.

Finding inner peace: “I don’t have to take any crap”

One of the most influential female musicians of all time, Khan has created album after album of memorable tracks, both solo and with Rufus, making it a tricky task to pick the best Chaka Khan songs. Though there have been demons and dark days (Khan is very open about her past issues with addiction), she has increasingly found inner peace. “Age isn’t meaningful to me,” she said in 2017, at the age of 64. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my own skin, and more accepting of myself. The older I get the more I realise I don’t have to take any crap.”

Listen to the best of Chaka Khan here, and check out our best Chaka Khan songs, below.

10: I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone) (with Rufus) (from ‘Rufusized’, 1974)

I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone) is a funky feminist flame from the third Rufus album, Rufusized, released in 1974. It was at this point that Khan, with her commanding stage presence and raw voice (which somehow combined Iggy Pop and Aretha Franklin) really started to become the focal point of the group. Appearing on magazine covers and assuming the role of main spokesperson for the band, the seeds of her huge stardom were sown. Yet Khan has never allowed ambition to overtake her. “I control my life and I have never let success run away with me – I’ve taken it and ran,” she said in 2015. “And the only thing that could threaten my stability is me – I’m my only threat and my own worst enemy.”

9: Papillon (aka Hot Butterfly) (from ‘Naughty’, 1980)

Originally a low-key 1978 release by Gregg Diamond And Bionic Boogie, with Luther Vandross on vocals, Khan remade Papillon (aka Hot Butterfly) for her second album, 1980’s Naughty. Vandross was also a vocalist on this new version, and together the pair refashioned the song as a strange creature, one that is somehow both ballad and upbeat dancer. One of the best Chaka Khan songs of the early 80s, it’s almost a lament for the last days of disco.

8: Keep Reachin’ (with Quincy Jones and Mark Ronson) (from ‘Quincy: A Life Beyond Measure (Music From The Netflix Original Documentary)’, 2018)

In 2018, the documentary Quincy, about the legendary producer Quincy Jones, premiered on Netflix. Along with selections from Jones’ unparalleled career, the soundtrack featured a new track: a collaboration between Jones, Mark Ronson and Chaka Khan. Ronson told Classic Pop magazine how the lyrics were directly inspired by Jones’ work ethic: “The one thing you’re struck by is, despite every accolade that [Jones] achieves, he’s still like: ‘Man, I can’t believe we got here.’ Even after the first one, he would’ve been happy to retire. He’s like: ‘Man, you gotta keep reachin’. That became the song and I got to record it with the wonderful Chaka Khan.”

7: Like Sugar (from ‘Hello Happiness’, 2019)

Released in 2019, the album Hello Happiness came over a decade after Chaka Khan’s previous release, 2007’s Funk This. She has said she did not stop recording during this period, but she chose not to release anything; and then the death of her close friend Prince in 2016 hit her hard. “You cover up and rethink your whole life,” Khan said two years later. “You’ve got to rethink yourself.” Hello Happiness, and particularly its lead single, Like Sugar, proved that the soul icon had lost none of her funk and fire: she was more then capable of recording material that could hold its own among the best Chaka Khan songs.

6: Clouds (from ‘Naughty’, 1980)

Opening the album Naughty, Clouds is a deep Ashford & Simpson number, made even more titanic by the vocal contributions of Cissy Houston and her then teenage daughter Whitney. “I’m proud I gave Whitney Houston her break when she was 15,” Khan said in 2017. “I saw my younger self in her, but could tell she was destined for greatness.” Whitney and Khan would come to have an affinity that went beyond music, with both having very public battles with substance use. “My struggles with addiction have made me the amazing human being I am now,” Khan reflected in 2015. “I have no regrets and wouldn’t change a thing. I’m genuinely surprised I’m still here, though. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this.”

5: Circles (with Rufus) (from ‘Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan’, 1975)

Chaka Khan was still only 22 in 1974, the time of Rufus’s fourth album, Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (the title of the album reflecting Khan’s increasing reputation as one of the best female soul singers of the era). Circles, which closes out Side One of the record, is its highlight. “There is no perfect love – that’s something I’m very realistic about,” Khan said in 2015. “Most of my songs are not about romance, they’re about life. In fact, I try to stay away from love songs. I get sick of them. Especially bluesy ones, crying songs, whining about some lost lover. I hate shit like that, and I’ve always felt that way.” Circles is a great example of Khan’s trademark take on passion: vast in scope, almost confrontational in its power, and the antithesis of a sentimental love song.

4: Some Love (from ‘Chaka’, 1978)

An absolute funk monster among the best Chaka Khan songs, Some Love is from Khan’s 1978 solo debut album, Chaka. This album saw her team up with producer Arif Mardin, who brought together the cream of New York City’s session players, with a rhythm section drawing from Average White Band. Some Love featured writing contributions from Khan and her brother, Mark Stevens, and is a masterclass in lustrous, aerodynamic hardcore disco.

3: Ain’t Nobody (with Rufus) (from ‘Stompin’ At The Savoy’, 1983)

Ain’t Nobody was a song that Rufus fought for. Originally included as one of four studio tracks on their 1983 live album, Stompin’ At The Savoy, it was not considered single material by the band’s label. The band disagreed, and the song’s writer, Rufus keyboardist David “Hawk” Wolinski, threatened to give Ain’t Nobody to Michael Jackson for inclusion on Thriller, if the label did not release it as the first single from Stompin’ At The Savoy. The tactic worked: Ain’t Nobody was a single, and it duly smashed the charts. Confirming Khan’s place among the best 80s female singers, Ain’t Nobody has also endured as a song, with a successful cover version coming every few years; there’s even a version by Richard X that pairs Ain’t Nobody’s lyrics with the music of Being Boiled by The Human League.

2: I’m Every Woman (from ‘Chaka’, 1978)

“Women are the first teachers of children,” Khan said in 2017. “We bring the children unto the Earth, and we’re their first teachers.” Khan’s signature song, the opening track on her first solo album, and the embodiment of feminist pride, I’m Every Woman has only continued to rise in stature in the decades since its release, and it is now also embraced as one of the best LGBTQ+ Pride songs. It has been covered by Whitney Houston, for The Bodyguard soundtrack, and re-recorded in 2021 by Khan in a duet with Idina Menzel, to celebrate International Women’s Day. “I think it’s about sisterhood,” Menzel said of the song. “Often society tries to get us to compete and tear each other down. It’s about holding each other up and giving each other an opportunity to be heard and to be seen.” In its famous video, made before promotional clips were common, Khan appears in quintuplicate and leaves us in no doubt that she can read our thoughts right now – every one, from A to Z. “I think it’s a great song and a wonderful intention,” she said in 2017. “The song really speaks for itself, doesn’t it? It speaks the truth.”

1: I Feel For You (from ‘I Feel For You’, 1984)

“I’m very bored of that song, yes,” Khan said in 2015. “I guess I’ll be singing it for the rest of my life, but I’ve had enough.” The reason Chaka Khan is so tired of I Feel For You is that everybody else is not, and never will be. One of the best 80s songs started life just before the dawn of the decade, as a single from Prince’s self-titled 1979 album, having already been turned down by Patrice Rushen. It looked like a forgotten track until Khan absolutely transformed it into a colossal worldwide hit. Topping this list of the best Chaka Khan songs, I Feel For You cleverly connects past and future, with the incorporation of a 1963 Stevie Wonder sample (from Fingertips – Part 2) and a rap by Melle Mel (of Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five). The unmistakable repetition of Khan’s name at the start of the song was a mistake on the part of producer Arif Mardin, but it sounded so amazing that he decided to keep it in. Khan knows that I Feel For You has contributed to the love people feel for her, and she looks back over her body of work with enormous amounts of satisfaction. “It’s been a career full of fascination,” she said in 2007. “I’m fascinated at my willpower, how I’ve been able to keep the love alive in myself, how I’ve been able to keep going… When I think about it, I might have done many things differently. But if I had, I wouldn’t be the fascinating woman I am today!”

Find out where Chaka Khan ranks among the best female soul singers of all time.

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